Outside Business Journal

Is Your Next Great Employee a Customer?

Brendan Madigan took a chance when his first hire at Alpenglow Sports was a 21-year-old college kid who was a regular customer. And it paid off

Hannah Johnson

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Long before she began working at Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City, California, owner Brendan Madigan knew Emily Burke was special.

“Emily’s family has shopped at Alpenglow for decades,” Madigan said. “Since her youth, she’s craved a position at the shop, and she let me know it.”

Flash forward over a decade later, and 21-year-old Burke is now an all-star Alpenglow employee, making waves in the store with her unique ability to connect with customers, as well as her outstanding passion for all things outdoors.

Brendan Madigan. Long haired smiling man in black hoodie standing in a retail shop
Brendan Madigan, owner of Alpenglow, hopes to hire more college students in the future. (Photo: Courtesy)

Burke was enthusiastic and downright persistent about joining the Alpenglow team, said Madigan, reflecting back to first time when she first approached him about a job.

“I was really busy trying to get ready for the season, and was a little behind on communication,” he said. “Emily kept following up. To me, persistence speaks to interest and commitment, two things that aren’t inherent in everyone applying for a new position.”

And so, in June 2017 they made it official. Burke began working at Alpenglow during her summer break from Vassar College, where she’s a senior studying earth science.

“She is definitely youngest new staff member that we’ve hired since I purchased the shop in 2011,” Madigan said. “We do look forward to bringing more and more college students on board for seasonal positions when applicable. Younger folks have fantastic new ideas that can be easily implemented in a small business environment as well as insight into the habits of their generation.”

Joining an experienced and older staff, Burke quickly found confidence both in merchandising and customer service.

Encourage Creativity in Your Staff

Madigan says one of Burke’s strengths as an employee is her creativity and natural marketing skills. She was often the first staff member to jump on the opportunity to decorate the window displays or in-store booths, something Madigan encouraged.

“We actively encourage all new staff to come in and shake things up—tell us your ideas, how we should be doing things differently, what are we missing,” Madigan said. “By empowering your staff and allowing them to utilize their authentic voice everyone wins, most importantly the end-user who comes in the shop.”

“Her attention to merchandising details is well beyond her years and her in-store displays are artistic and engaging,” Madigan said. “When people see a compelling and well-merchandised display, it speaks to them on some aspirational or personal level. Emily’s tables and windows always managed to do this really well, and we saw direct sales come out of them.”

One display Burke created that sticks out to Madigan was for Mountain Festival, Alpenglow’s nine-day celebration of “human-powered mountain sports” in North Lake Tahoe. “She had the understanding of what sponsors where involved and how we needed to showcase their commitment to the event though branded merchandise and displays,” Madigan said.

Burke also lent her creative eye to managing the store’s media relations, often landing the store placements in local newspapers and magazines. Even after the summer season, Burke continues to help out with Alpenglow’s media presence, managing social media posts and writing press releases.

Cultivating Cred

Madigan says that Burke excelled in interacting with customers of all ages and skill levels. She would jump in on high-level conversations with experienced, older customers with as much confidence and ease as helping people closer to her age.

Emily Burke Alpenglow Shop Star
“Real deal” employees are the essence of good outdoor specialty retailers. Amazon can’t compete with that. (Photo: Courtesy)

That ability to connect with customers happens naturally for Burke. “She’s just the real deal,” said Madigan. “Emily would often come in with mosquito welts or sore legs from running a marathon. It just speaks to her passion for the mountain sports that we all love.”

While finishing up her senior year at Vassar, Burke remains in close touch with Madigan and the rest of the Alpenglow crew. She plans on working several shifts over Christmas break, and Madigan is hopeful she will come back to work at the store after her spring semester.

“I had formative mentors in my life and I think it’s our responsibility to nurture those coming up behind us as the next generation. To provide an environment that allows younger folks to grow and add to their skill sets is extremely rewarding for us.”